From The Gambia to Vladivostok

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Africa, Asia & Pacific Area (AAPA) Director, Richard Hills, provides an insight into how the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s AAPA team prepared for Armistice.

 Fajara War Cemetery, Gambia

Fajara War Cemetery, Gambia

As a multitude of Armistice events were conducted across Europe, our Africa and Asia Pacific Area (AAPA) team were focussed on other parts of the globe, and a world away from the trenches of the Western Front.  AAPA are responsible for the CWGC’s sites in some 58 countries from Cape Verde right across to Fiji, but in the second week of November, as I was conducting technical inspections and meeting our staff in West Africa, my works team had completed a key project on Russia’s Pacific Coast - it struck me yet again how diverse the CWGC’s role was and how its footprint really stretches. 

 King Tom Cemetery, Sierra leone

King Tom Cemetery, Sierra leone

My first stop was in Sierra Leone and after the excitement of crossing Freetown Harbour by boat at midnight(!) I took part in a busy Armistice Service and site Re-dedication at our King Tom Cemetery.  A huge thanks to the British High Commission for facilitating the event for us which saw VIPs from many Embassies/High Commissions in attendance.

The site was seriously damaged by torrential flooding in 2016 and we rebuilt the impressive new sea Defences with the help of commercial partners this year. It’s a huge relief to complete this, as Marine Engineering projects are challenging at the best of times, let alone on the West African Coast, and our site would have gradually fallen into the sea had we not found a solution.

Of the 534 commemorations in King Tom, 131 are from WW1, and for some reason, I find it a little more futile that they all perished so far away from home as a result of the global flu pandemic in 1918/19, as opposed to being combat casualties.

We are looking to renovate this cemetery after the major repairs and I spent some time over three visits, walking the whole perimeter, pacing the headstones and standing under the marvellous old cotton tree which seems to envelop the whole location, trying to get a feel for what we need to achieve.  In the face of serious water shortages, our technical solution must be effective and ethical, but must not remove the old world charm of this quiet and respectful corner of Freetown.   

Barely 24 hours later, I landed in The Gambia (where temperatures had risen noticeably) to conduct a technical inspection of the CWGC’s Fajara War Cemetery and to meet the team, who gave me a very warm welcome.  Similarly, water supply is an enduring problem at this location, and in Armistice week, we have started building a storage facility which will enable us to efficiently supply our staff with this valuable resource.  

 Jean Paul and Saihou receiving their awards in Gambia

Jean Paul and Saihou receiving their awards in Gambia

Whilst there I also had the opportunity to present our two dedicated staff, Jean Paul and Saihou, with their long service awards; who have some 20 years of experience between them! They are real characters, as is Haddy our local supervisor, and it was very useful to discuss with them our technical progress at the site but also, to get a feel for the operational challenges they face on a day to day basis. Their pride in receiving their awards was palpable and the photograph says it all.   

 Christianborg War Cemetery, Accra

Christianborg War Cemetery, Accra

The next day I flew straight to Ghana and met the Department of Parks and Gardens team who facilitate the maintenance of some 10 CWGC sites across the country.  We have a long standing partnership with this excellent organisation and they do a fantastic job in delivering our work.  In the stunning Christianborg War Cemetery, Accra, we have just commenced a project to substantially upgrade the base site and welfare facility and to ensure that proper provision is made for the dedicated team who work there.  

A rather bumpy flight up to Kumasi the next day (on what was a very small airplane!) enabled me to inspect several more of our sites and memorials in a bustling provincial town, but I was reassured again to see the high level of maintenance that all our commemorations receive in country.

There were many other projects and inspections being conducted by the AAPA team during Armistice week this year, but as I was leaving the pleasant heat of Ghana, I received an update from the works team on what had been achieved many thousands of miles away on Russia’s distant Pacific coastline.

Our technical staff, with the support of local specialists, had completed the full renovation of Churkin Naval Cemetery, Vladivostok, an often forgotten part of the CWGCs remit.  Adjacent to a rather austere looking local cemetery, and surrounded by thick woods, the small CWGC plot of 31 graves of the Canadian and British Forces (who were buried there after operations in 1918-20) looks quite distinct and is easily recognisable as a CWGC site.

When I saw the previous pictures, I realised the climate had certainly taken its toll on this little site over the years, but it is now fully renovated to acceptable Commission standards on the 100th Anniversary of the campaign, and with a technical solution which will endure in the local climate.